In his book, Open Source Leadership, Reinventing Management When There Is No More Business as Usual (McGraw-Hill, October 2017), my colleague, Rajeev Peshawaria, describes the 21st Century as the Open Source Era. The Open Source Era is characterized by not just rapid change, but hyper-accelerating change, driven by the digital revolution. Thanks to mobile devices we have connectivity and almost unlimited access to information 24/7, 365. In fact, there’s so much information available that almost nothing is private anymore. Literally, we are naked and exposed – just ask the actress Jennifer Lawrence or Equifax, the consumer rating service.
Being naked and exposed is especially true of today’s leaders. Almost anything a leader has ever done or said can be fact-checked. Contradictions and changing positions can be brought to light and questioned instantly. As a result, two terms, “alternative facts” and “fake news” have become very popular. With all the claims about alternative facts and fake news in the media and politics, I find myself wondering how long it will be before these terms are used by corporate leadership. It’s getting harder and harder to know who is telling the truth. In the 21st Century, where everyone can quickly be exposed and stripped naked in the public domain, telling the truth is more important than ever for leaders.
Let me give you a personal example to illustrate the point I’m making. Years ago, when I was still working in the corporate world, I was the manager of organization development for the regional operations of a medium-sized telecommunications company. The company was part of a consortium that conducted and shared the results of a biennial employee opinion survey for benchmarking purposes. It was generally acknowledged within the consortium that there was never a good time to conduct a systems wide opinion survey. However, on this particular occasion, it was really bad timing. The company had recently started a consolidation and downsizing initiative. While the region’s leadership assured employees things would be okay, and jobs would be safe, the outcome of the initiative included a 10% reduction in the workforce. When the results of the survey were made available, the leadership team was surprised by the negative ratings that basically indicated they were not trusted. The region president called me into his office and informed me that we needed to start a “trust campaign” to win back employees. It was a tough sell convincing him that instead of posters and slogans, the leadership team should go out and talk to employees, admit that they were wrong on how the consolidation initiative would impact the organization, and be candid about next steps, which would most likely include additional downsizing. While he initially resisted my recommendation, he finally agreed to conducting a series of townhall meetings around the region. During these townhalls, the president and his team displayed a high level of candor about what was happening, what might happen and what was uncertain. The leadership team got a lot of push back from employees but they resisted the temptation to fight back. They empathized but remained firm in what needed to be done. It took a while but eventually the employees began to trust the leadership team again.
Which brings me to the point of this article. The bond between a leader and his or her followers is based upon the truth. But that bond is very, very fragile, especially during challenging times such as an economic down turn or the emergence of a disruptive technology that completely upends the corporate business model (think Blackberry verses Apple). One lie, misstep, or omission of facts, can erase years of a trusting relationship. Quickly, employees begin to question their leader’s intent, especially if the leader’s words and behavior are not aligned and this can lead to a loss of trust. Once trust is lost, it cannot be recovered by simply saying “believe me” or “trust me”. It needs to be earned back through actions and behaviors that are authentic, candid, and most importantly truthful.
Here are six important leadership lessons I learnt by going through that experience:
1. Don’t say things will not change. Most people want predictability and stability. But, in the Open Source Era, nothing is predictable or stable. Change comes at us fast and from unlikely places. It is better to tell people things will change and help them develop the ability to adapt to change.
2. Don’t tell people what they want to hear. It is very tempting to tell people what they want to hear, which is, everything will be fine, that good paying jobs will be secure or return. It is far better to tell them what they need to hear, and that is the truth.
3. Never promise more than you can deliver. When a leader promises a lot, high expectations are set. When those expectations are not delivered, employees perceive that they have been misled and lose trust in the leader. It’s better to follow the advice of former McKinsey consultant, Tom Peters, and “under promise, over deliver”.
4. Don’t say things will get better when you suspect the opposite is true. It is human nature to want things to get better. When you don’t know if, or when, things will get better, say that. If conditions may get worse, acknowledge it. This does not mean tell your employees to give up. It’s still possible to pursue a better future with fearless purpose. As Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba, famously said, “Today is very difficult; tomorrow is much more difficult; but the day after tomorrow is very beautiful. Most people die tomorrow evening.”
5. Don’t stretch the truth. Like lesson number two, leaders can be tempted to modify the truth to fit the situation or their need. Let’s call this what it is … lying. No matter how tempting the situation is, never, never lie. Mother was right when she said lying only makes matters worse.
6. Never publicly shame anyone. Leaders who shame people only get compliance with their desires; they don’t get commitment. In the Open Source Era, the key to commitment is not shame; it’s engagement. It’s okay to disagree but far better to engage people in discussion rather than break off communication with bellicosity.
Being truthful and open is difficult. Many leaders fear that by being honest they become more vulnerable and that vulnerability is construed as weakness. However, as former German President, Horst Köhler, recently said, “Doesn’t it [vulnerability] rather make you more perceptive, more creative, more able to understand others and therefore more able to find solutions?” Being open and truthful maintains the bond of trust between leaders and their followers. In the Open Source 21st Century, we need this bond more than ever.